My Two Moms
For Marsha Hams and her partner, Susan
Shepherd, raising a son came before making history.
By Rachel Stewart Johnson '96
on May 16, 2004, there were two souls waiting outside Cambridge (Mass.)
City Hall. The first minute of the next day—24 hours away—would mark the
beginning of gay marriage in Massachusetts, and Marcia Hams ’69 and
Susan Shepherd wanted to be the first to take hold of history.
Hams (seen at right in the photo) has made a lifetime of swimming upstream. Introduced to activism as
a Pomona student during the late 1960s, Hams developed early interests
in civil rights and social justice. An anthropology major, she gained an
international perspective studying in Europe and spending her first
post- baccalaureate year in West Africa. “There was a sense not only
that the country was changing, but that the world was changing,” she
Calling her international experiences “tremendously important” in
shaping her professional goals, she became convinced of the need to
shape her career around political issues. Inspired by the labor
movement, she took a job as a machinist’s apprentice at the General
Electric plant in Lynn, Mass. There, she became a voice for workers’
rights and served on the union’s committee for women.
In coworker Shepherd, Hams found a kindred spirit.
It was not until her mid-20s that Hams came to a personal realization
regarding her sexual orientation. “It’s hard for me to even imagine that
people are coming out in college now,” she laughs. “That’s something
that has changed dramatically. It wasn’t something that I really
understood about myself until I was 25 or so.”
Accepting her emerging identity was heavy with challenges, Hams
remembers. Important among these was the possibility that her lifestyle
could close the door to parenthood. “Like a lot of us at that time, it
was scary to think that I might not have kids,” says Hams. “I think it
was important for both of us, as it was for our heterosexual friends and
For the two women who had both made a broad commitment to political
activism, here was a monumental choice that was quiet and apolitical.
“For some reason, we just decided that we could do this,” Hams
remembers. A friend agreed to father their child, with the understanding
that Hams and Shepherd would be the parents.
Their son, Peter Hams, was born in early 1980. Two neighbors also had
children in the same three-month span, so Peter was immersed in a cozy
scene with playmates nearby.
“He was an easy baby. We absolutely loved being parents,” Hams recalls.
She speaks fondly of the early years of Peter’s life, with trips to the
beaches of Cape Cod, camping in New Hampshire and a neighborhood abuzz
with children. Peter had an eye for adventure even before his school
years: he built a ramp to do tricks with his bike, undaunted by the fact
that he was still using training wheels.
The neighbors in Lynn, a diverse working-class community, did not ask
questions. Hams was “Mom;” Shepherd, “Aunt Susan.”
“We just got used to being semi-in-the-closet,” Hams says. “That’s one
thing about the events of the last couple of years that’s been so
amazing. … It has just been incredibly liberating to really talk about
our lives in a different way.”
As Peter grew, his mothers remained focused on enjoying their athletic,
amiable son. His early school experiences brought to light a learning
disability. His mothers’ concerns naturally mirrored those shared by any
parent of a child with such a challenge. However, there were other
concerns unique to lesbian parents. In Lynn, a community they had long
since grown fond of, they avoided an in-home assessment of their son,
fearing it could lead to his being taken from them.
There were realities to confront.
“When he went to school, we felt like we had to tell him that people
might think there was something wrong with our family because we didn’t
know what somebody might say to him. So that was difficult, because you
don’t want to put this idea into kids’ heads when that hasn’t really
been their experience. On the other hand, you want to prepare them for
hostility if it comes up. So that was a difficult thing,” Hams says.
When the Supreme Court of the state of Massachusetts ordered that
marriage licenses be granted to same-sex couples, lawmakers in
Cambridge, where Hams and Shepherd had lived for several years, decided
their city should be the first munici¬pality to grant licenses. Members
of the local gay community asked Hams and Shepherd to be the first to
receive a license.
Their thoughts quickly turned to Peter. He was enjoying a happy
existence at nearby Merrimack College and had earned notice as a member
of the school’s Division I hockey team. His mothers worried about
disrupting their young athlete’s collegiate career.
Through the years, they had maintained a careful co-existence, raising a
son amid a volatile sociopolitical arena. The interplay was built on an
ideal, voiced by Peter, that feels like a well-worn line of script: It’s
the world that has the problem, and not us. Still, agreeing that his
mothers should become the first gay Massachusetts couple to receive a
marriage license was not just about family loyalty. It meant stepping
onto the brightly lit stage of the iconoclast.
Peter and his mothers had developed parallel habits over time. “We
thought we were protecting him, and he thought he was protecting us,”
Hams says. The three of them had always been close. Although he was
reluctant to step into the spotlight himself, Peter agreed that his
mothers should welcome the opportunity before them.
And so, Hams and Shepherd waited outside City Hall. What began as an
unassuming stand of two women gradually became a community’s happy
hubbub, chronicled by the national and international news media. The
passing hours saw the arrival of reporters, local leaders and hundreds
of other couples. City officials brought cake to celebrate the occasion.
Peter, who had not known whether he should visit the scene himself,
learned of the joyful tone and decided he belonged with the throngs and
at his mothers’ sides.
It was an exciting, liberating episode in the history of a family. Later
that year, there was a wedding with 270 guests. Not only was Peter
there, but so were many faces familiar from his childhood: playmates
from the old neighborhood, parents from the hockey teams. The Human
Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest advocacy organization for lesbian,
gay, bisexual and transgender individuals, named Peter one of its Top 10
Since their historic step and the fanfare, the family has returned to
its comfortable patter. Hams works in health care policy and advocacy,
and Shepherd is completing a Ph.D. in industrial hygiene. Peter, now 26,
works for a computer company and lives just a mile and a half from his
moms. What has always been there still remains—a quiet pride floating
among them: a young man who makes his mothers brag, and two mothers who
have claimed their piece of American history.
Same-Sex Marriages: The State(s) of the Law
• Massachusetts issues marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
• Connecticut and Vermont allow civil unions.
• Hawaii, Maine and New Jersey provide some spousal-like rights to
• California recognizes domestic partnerships and provides almost all
state-level spousal rights to unmarried couples.
• Washington recognizes parenting rights of same-sex partners who are not
biologically related to but helped raise a child.
Legal challenges seeking
permission for gays and lesbians are pending in California, Connecticut,
Florida, Iowa, Maryland, Nebraska, New
Jersey, New York, Oklahoma and
Eighteen states prohibit same-sex marriage: Alaska, Arkansas,
Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan,
Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio,
Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas
State amendments banning same-sex marriages are scheduled for statewide
votes in Alabama, Idaho, South Carolina, South
Dakota, Tennessee and